Florida is a lush subtropical paradise and one of the great US vacation destinations, with its border of soft sand beaches, terrific fishing and diving, and legendary party atmosphere in cities like Miami. Up in the north gleams Orlando, a dream destination for generations of kids suckled on the films of Walt Disney. But it’s not all cocktails, theme parks and gorgeous beaches; travellers seeking something a little more natural should head to Everglades National Park, where Florida’s southern tip dissolves into an untamed wilderness of mangrove, marsh and swamp, home to panthers and crocodiles.
Originally a small fishing village, Destin’s gorgeous position on Florida’s emerald coast has drawn tourists for decades, driving its evolution into an upmarket resort town. Its main attraction is undoubtedly its long beach, framing the Gulf of Mexico with a seemingly endless stretch of silky white sand. There are plenty of fabulous oceanfront hotels to choose between, and visitors can get out onto the ocean on dolphin cruises, sea kayaking trips and deep sea fishing expeditions.
50 miles east of Destin along Florida’s gorgeous Gulf of Mexico coastline lies another fabulous resort town, Panama City Beach. It’s beaches are a continuation of those at Destin and so equally luxurious underfoot; the best are located in St. Andrews State Park, which also contains a series of hiking trails snaking through the shoreline sand dunes. Nature lovers can sojourn in a different environment in Pine Log Forest State Park, which has some terrific horse riding trails between the fragrant conifer trees. And the town itself hosts a plethora of companies offering boating, fishing, dolphin watching and sea kayaking tours.
Fort Myers, a busy and booming town in its own right, is also a popular tourist destination, and has been for some time - both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford had winter holiday homes in the city. Located in southwest Florida, it’s a great base for boating, fishing, kayaking, birdwatching and water sports, while retaining a bustling town feel with lots of restaurants, bars, and a handful of its own attractions. These include a beautiful butterfly conservatory, the Butterfly Estates, as well as the aforementioned homes of Edison and Ford.
Photo by Scott Smith/Flickr.
A town steeped in history, St. Augustine makes a strong claim to be the oldest continuously occupied European settlement and port in the continental United States. It was founded in 1565 by a Spanish admiral, going on to serve as the capital of Spanish Florida for 200 years. This long history is etched onto the city streets, and the town is justly famous for its striking Spanish-style architecture, which frames the panoramic views from its picturesque bay. This history is further evoked in historic buildings such as the Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas, while context can be gained by visiting museums such as the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum and Florida’s Oldest House. Importantly, there are plenty of pleasant cafes and restaurants to drop into as you wander the town’s pretty streets.
A world away from its more famous namesake in Russia, Florida’s Saint Petersburg lazes through days drenched in the state’s subtropical sun. A short distance from Tampa, it’s located at the base of the Tampa Bay and enjoys a more laid-back atmosphere than the bigger city lying along the sand. In recent years, its downtown has grown into a vibrant arts and crafts center, with plenty of stores, galleries, museums and street artists. Highlights include the Salvador Dali Museum, with the largest collection of the surrealist’s work in the US, and the Sunken Gardens, a lushly landscaped oasis of plant life laced together by a maze of overhung trails.
Photo by Daniel Dudek-Corrigan/Flickr.
Just along the beach from Miami, Fort Lauderdale is nicknamed the Venice of America due to its extensive canal network. Once a hub of Spring Break mayhem, it has settled down over the past fifteen years and become a more upscale and cosmopolitan resort, with several fine European restaurants and a well-established queer scene. Much of this centers on its main beach known as The Strip, and there’s also excellent snorkelling, scuba diving and deep sea fishing out on the Atlantic yawning beyond the beach.
Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr.
Pensacola, along with its neighbor Pensacola Beach, is situated on the emerald waters of the Florida panhandle. It mixes a gorgeous seaside environment with a dramatic history of shipwrecks and skirmishes. Five different nations have raised their flags above the city, and innumerable trading vessels and scouting expeditions have set out from the town’s naturally protected bay. This eventful past remains visible in Historic Pensacola Village, a group of historic buildings which includes a cluster of museums, and in the fort and lighthouse that look out to sea from the town’s exposed southern frontier.
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New Smyrna Beach is a small seaside oasis, fronted by some of Florida’s best beaches. Despite being known as the shark bite capital of the world, it’s a popular surfing destination, and there’s always a few silhouettes visible out on the water all year round. Swimming, scuba diving, kitesurfing and fishing are all popular activities, too. And beyond the beach the town has plenty of tasty restaurants and homey sidewalk cafes, a cluster of art galleries spearheaded by the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and an inland wildlife preserve with a shallow creek running between 60-foot sand cliffs.
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Delray Beach combines the kind of seaside attractions its name implies – subtropical beaches, swimming and diving, fishing and boating – with some of the liveliest nightlife in south Florida. This centers around Atlantic Avenue, the town’s main drag, currently in the middle of an investment boom and lined with rapidly changing bars, restaurants, clubs and shops. And if all this sounds a little hectic, there are several tranquil sites around the city. Spend a while wandering the grassy waterways of the Arthur C. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge Preserve, or visit the cultural and historic Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens.
Photo by VISIT FLORIDA/Flickr.
Daytona Beach is a place of pilgrimage for American motor racing fans, famed for hosting the biggest event in NASCAR’s calendar, the furious Daytona 500, played out on the glistening Daytona International Speedway. But while this is the town’s main draw, there’s also plenty for visitors disinterested in screaming engines, with some great seafood restaurants (check out Caribbean Jack’s) and a string of superb golf courses. Surrounding the town are several wild and tranquil parks such as Lighthouse Point, a ruggedly beautiful stretch of beach with broad skies and lots of wildlife.
Everglades National Park is unlike anything else on this list, a vast wetlands wilderness cloaking the state’s southern tip. A world away from Miami and Orlando’s hyper-developed human world, it’s a verdant patchwork of mangrove, marsh and swamp inhabited by panthers, crocodiles and a wide variety of wading birds. Hikers can follow carefully designated trails through the Ten Thousand Islands National Park, where hardwood forests of oak and palm are gradually swallowed by brackish marsh and ocean, or hire a boat and wend through the narrow waterways of the Everglades interior, exploring the swamps of the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Photo by Express Monorail/Flickr.
Kissimmee is best known as a gateway to the world of Walt Disney, located only a few miles from the legendary theme park and with a string of giant resorts catering to visitors who want a little distance from the atmosphere of relentless (and almost unaffordable) fun. But it’s also a tourist friendly town in its own right, with plenty of restaurants, shops and kid-friendly activities. Feast yourself on the fare of centuries-old Europe at the Medieval Times dinner and show, then stroll the streets of the colorful and inventive Old Town.
Photo by GarySlinger/Flickr.
SImply getting to Key West is a pretty cool experience - it’s the final stop on the Overseas Highway, a road raised above the azure sea and offering spectacular views over the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Once there, you’ll find a laid-back yet lively community with great nightlife, beautiful beaches and a buzzing gay scene. More cerebral attractions include Ernest Hemingway House, where the writer worked on various novels including For Whom The Bell Tolls. Hemingway fans can then trip over to the writer’s favorite drinking hole, Captain Tony’s Saloon, for a dry martini in honor of Papa.
Photo by Martin Pilát/Flickr.
Sprawling over Florida’s east coast and across several peninsulas and islands, Miami is a city shaped by the sea and, as such, contains an astonishing number of beaches. The epicenter of Miami glam is found on South Beach, which is just across from the (in)famous clubs and restaurants of Ocean Drive. If this doesn’t sound like your scene, then an entirely different atmosphere hovers over Bill Baggs Cape Florida Beach, a mile of uncluttered sand and nature trails on the tip of Key Biscayne. Meanwhile, surfers should hit up Haulover Beach, and families spread out on Matheson Hammock Beach Park, where a man-made lagoon stills the waves, making it extra-safe for kids.
Photo by ThornMonkey/Flickr.
Nicknamed the theme park capital of the world, Orlando is a mecca for a generations of kids suckled on the films of Disney and Universal Studios. Its big-ticket attractions are numerous and stupendous: start at Disney World, of course, before getting behind the camera at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Animal lovers don’t ever miss Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which injects some interactive thrills into the usual zoo experience, as well as Discovery Cove, a labyrinth of pools and caves teeming with marine life. And beyond that, even more straightforward theme park thrills await at the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure.